I grew up in a state where football is a religion, snow was something seen maybe once or twice a year, and the kids who played hockey were the weirdos.
Yeah, I’m talking about Texas.
I didn’t grow up with the culture of hockey. I didn’t understand why waivers for free Houston Aeros tickets were given away once a week in my elementary PE class. I know two kids who played hockey growing up, and both were on clubs teams. I have only skated on ice three times in my life. The first time was when I was 16. Also, I didn’t grow up with Mario and Jagr on my TV. I didn’t even know who they were until 2011.
This is what southern United States teams have to fight when it comes to spreading hockey. There is no innate culture here. Kids don’t play pond hockey. Kids spend their summers playing football, swimming, or soccer. Snow is a novelty, especially to the southern part of the state, and when people talk about it, we think it’s the most magical thing on earth.
(And, just to add to your disbelief, not a lot of children know who Sidney Crosby is. I actually asked a bunch of kids I was helping at a local library. Only one kid out of about sixteen knew, and that was because she had just moved from Canada.)
Minnesota may always hate Dallas for taking the North Stars away, but it’s what brought awareness of the game to a state (and especially a city) that lives and breathes football. That move is what brought hockey to the south.
The Dallas Stars, and subsequently, the NHL, has spent a lot of money and time trying to expand the knowledge of Texas citizens when it comes to hockey. In the 90’s, Texans didn’t know what hockey was. They didn’t know the rules, and fighting on ice seemed like the craziest thing they had ever heard of.
Mike Modano and the Stars spent time reading to kids in classrooms, doing signings, and all the events that came with educating people about hockey. There was a good center of people (especially in Houston) who knew what hockey was because that’s what they grew up with. More than a few hockey fans I know moved from Calgary or Edmonton because of the oil industry. Hockey grew exponentially after the Stars arrived. We have around 20 hockey teams at various levels in the state that I can name, and most didn’t start until after the Stars moved to Texas. AHL teams like the San Antonio Rampage and Houston Aeros, and some of our colleges even have hockey teams, like Baylor and Texas A&M.
But the last few years without an owner hurt the Stars and hockey in general where the public is concerned. There wasn’t money for a lot of advertising or even keeping key players because of money woes. It wasn’t easy, but with Tom Gaglardi at the helm, seats are being filled again, and the hockey outreach program is back on track.
Still, it’s always a surprise to see someone wearing a hat, sweater or shirt that is related to a hockey franchise. It’s a secret handshake of sorts to acknowledge someone else who is a hockey fan. I’ve called out to a mother carrying around her daughter wearing a Toews sweater and received a smile. I’ve wished a guy in a longboard good luck to the Sharks in the playoffs based on his shirt. I’ve high-fived a young boy with a Dallas Stars jacket. It’s a brief acknowledgement of “there are others like me out there” before you go on about your business.
Hockey is a subculture here. My father, at 50 years young, just learned what icing means. My mother can’t watch a game with me, because it’s “too violent”. When my grandfather found out I was a fan of hockey, he paused at dinner and said, “That Canadian game?”, and I got scoffed at by my various uncles and cousins when I tried to explain why hockey was so much fun to watch.
With all the resistance, teams are working on reaching out to the kids, starting hockey programs and getting adults into the sport. The grassroot campaigns have taken hold and are starting to develop fans, and even players.
You may know names like Brian Leetch and Tyler Myers, who are Texas born hockey players, but we’ve got some upcoming hockey players as well. Austin Smith (drafted 128th), Dallas native, Hobey Baker Finalist, and Dallas Stars draft pick in 2007. To add to that in 2011, three Texas-born players were drafted. Stefan Noesen from Plano, TX was 21st (Ottawa), Blake Colemon from Plano was 75th (New Jersey), and Colin Jacobs from Coppell, TX went 107th (Buffalo).
I’ve heard people try to discredit teams (and fans) in the southern US. Yes, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, but Nashville just invited those fans to their games with extra incentives for ticket prices – and it worked. Dallas dropped the prices of some tickets to $8 and the American Airline Center has been packed since.
These facts that people are talking about, the lower crowd numbers, the lack of ownership, and the chance of teams being moved, doesn’t mean southern teams don’t have fans. That doesn’t mean there aren’t hockey fans in the south.
Go to a Calder Cup game in Houston or San Antonio and just take a look at all the sweaters. I’ve seen some from the Minnesota North Stars, Vancouver Canucks, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks. We may not be fans of the Dallas Stars, but we’re fans of hockey.
We are too invested in our teams, we tell the refs to “Get #$%^ing glasses!!”, and we drink too much when our teams win and when they lose – we are hockey fans just like you are. And don’t you dare try and tell me that because I became a fan at 20 and have only skated on ice three times I am less of a fan than you are. (Because those arguments make me angry, and you should all know I learned how to shoot a moving target at age 12, and I own a shotgun. Gotta love Texas.)
The only thing that makes me different is the fact that I can deal with triple digit weather and high humidity better than some of you. Oh, and I can’t drive on ice. And I’ve seen snow a handful of times in my life.
I’m still just another hockey fan.